Hello. It’s been a while. But I’ve been buying yet more crayons to prep for my talk at the Change:How? conference/political festival mashup! Dear Neighbour has been in hibernation for a while for a number of reasons- I had to stay with my parents in the West Country for a bit (hello housing crisis/ not many paid jobs in arts for young’ns) and I’m now back in London and but I don’t know where to start. Here’s a post written in excitement and fear….
On the 8th of February, 100 days before we vote in the general election, 100 speakers will share their ideas at Change: How? “A POLITICAL FESTIVAL” they promise, “AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE.” Well, I’m glad it sounds so open and creative because sitting down and trying to write my speech, I feel like a fraud; I’m not an avid campaigner, an activist or voice of my generation. No, I’m an unemployed arts graduate who made a project last year with my neighbours and cheap wax crayons from Rymans. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a political event.
Dear Neighbour was my attempt making some connection between the shiny steel and glass cathedral of Central Saint Martins art college where I studied, and the non-descript street in Tower Hamlets where I lived for three years simply because it was the cheapest room I could find. I wanted to see if my neighbours, strangers who represented a myriad of ages, interests, backgrounds and ethnicities, would participate in an arts project. I wondered what creativity could do for us collectively, in a place that felt increasingly fragmented: Can art forge a community? Do we want to feel part of a community? Can art ever be for everyone?
My project comprised of me posting a letter to every household on my street, asking residents to draw their portraits and mount them in their front windows for all to see from the pavement to create our very own portrait gallery, with a view to collaborating on an art project together. This low-fi plan was an attempt to challenge what I had experienced as a visitor and volunteer at many arts institutions and organisations. It was startlingly obvious to me that the theatres, museums and galleries that I had begun to visit did not seem in the least bit accessible to the people I lived amongst in the heart of Tower Hamlets, a borough well known for its ethnic diversity and extreme disparity in wealth.
This is old ground. Surely it frustrates us all that the media are still talking about the arts as the reserve of privately educated white men in 2015? Education is only one hurdle that excludes people from enjoying and participating in the arts- the ideological, cultural and practical barriers that get in the way of everyone enjoying the arts is a big ugly bog that the government seems incapable of sorting out. I realised that I could try and circumnavigate that bog of debate, inadequate funding and despair and do something independent that didn’t rely on public funding, corporate sponsorship or an imposing building or any building at all.
Rather than wade through policy, I looked at contemporary artists with participatory practices like Jeremy Deller, work that is activated by the thought and conversation of people who might not think themselves politically engaged at all. I researched publically and corporately funded projects at some well-known arts institutions and failed to find what impact they had, and I found out about some brilliant grass-roots art projects by walking around the city, looking and listening. But Dear Neighbour didn’t require anyone to go somewhere particular, the creativity took place on kitchen tables and the exhibition could be viewed on the way to work, school or to the corner shop. I wanted to find out whether people of all ages, backgrounds and interests would participate if the opportunity landed on their doormat, and it turned out that most of them did!
Accessibility to the arts is integral to society because it allows people who might feel overwhelmed by and detached from politics (like me), to be drawn into thinking and talking about issues that we face. At Change:How? they say the emphasis will be upon conversation, so everyone who comes along can properly participate, thrash out thoughts and work out what to do together. For many of us, our big ideas lie dormant, so lets support each other and make use of this platform. Ironically, having finally emerged from the education system, I personally feel less confident than ever as I struggle to find a job in the arts industry and pay my rent. Paralysed into inaction by the bigger system, I hope that listening and talking on Sunday will get me doing something exciting by Monday. You’re welcome to join me.